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Mental illness no laughing matter for one comedian

Doug Ferrari became homeless after he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder
Doug Ferrari became homeless after he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder  

In this story:

Known as 'Dougzilla

Treatment difficult

Life on the street

Coming back to life

Raising awareness


SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- Doug Ferrari is quite possibly one of the funniest people around. By all accounts, his name should have been up in lights, one of the biggest talents on the comedy stage. But an insidious form of mental illness stepped in instead, and Ferrari wound up on skid row.

At 6 feet 5 inches, the only thing bigger than Ferrari is the laugh he can get from an audience. And strangely, his biggest laughs come from the darkest of personal experiences.

Read "Blood on the Clown Suit," the article written by Doug Ferrari's friend Trent Hayward that Ferrari says helped him get his life back in order.


Ferrari describes his mental illness

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Ferrari says friends helped him survive his ordeal
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"I don't want to say I did a lot of cocaine," he told an audience recently, "but there are statues of me all over Colombia."

Ferrari broke into the San Francisco comedy scene in the early 80's by performing for passengers on city buses. But as a solo act, he immediately stood out from the crowd. Eventually, he took audiences by storm on the club circuit, winning a standup comedy competition in 1984.

"The guy was manic on stage. He'd pace back and forth ... he would just demand that the audience be there with him," says comedian Brian Seff.

Known as 'Dougzilla'

Ferrari earned the nickname "Dougzilla," as much for his personality as for his size. And it looked as if nothing could stop Dougzilla from crashing his way into stardom.

"It's part of the whole deal of comedy," explains Seff. "It's like ... make them love me for the first 15 seconds and then they'll follow me on whatever journey I take them on for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Doug had a knack for doing that."

Ferrari's rise to top billing on the comedy stage took a dark and perilous turn, however. Unknown to almost everyone around him, Ferrari had an illness -- one so difficult to diagnose and treat that it would take away everything he had worked for. It would ruin his marriage and his career before doctors could tell him what was wrong.

Ferrari admits, "I did not have a sober, straight, legal day from 1974 to 1994. Not one."

When his career should have been taking off, he was spiraling out of control. Drugs and alcohol were only part of the problem.

"It took three years and three therapists, and being clean and sober, before I ever heard of 'Borderline Personality Disorder.' "

BPD is a mental illness that affects 2 percent of the U.S. population but accounts for 20 percent of those hospitalized for mental disorders. It's characterized by a mosaic of symptoms, from intense fear of abandonment to episodes of angry outbursts and impulsive behavior.

"One of the things I'd heard a lot was, 'He was the funniest comic we've ever had here in the six years we've been open, and we never want to see him back here again,'" says Ferrari.

For the comedian, it was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde existence. On stage, he was loveable and hilarious -- but off stage Dougzilla was becoming a real-life monster.

Treatment difficult

Ferrari explains, "What makes BPD different from any other personality disorder is that your anger and impulsiveness -- acting out, kicking over a chair -- only happens when you're dealing with people you really love. If it's somebody you don't care about, who cares?"

Doug's wife Beth was the one who caught the full effect of his illness.

"I saw it because I lived with him," she remembers. "Every now and then, something would happen in public ... but some people would brush it off. He's creative. He's eccentric. That's what I thought, you know, when I married him."

Even when Ferrari was sober and able to perform, he was increasingly irrational at home. There was fighting, and times such as the day when he made nonstop menacing calls to Beth's office.

"The disorder got in my mind and said, you know, things like 'If she hangs up the phone one more time, I'm going to break something,'" Ferrari concedes, "and so, to me, it all seemed perfectly logical."

The private outbursts continued until shortly before Christmas and Doug's 40th birthday.

"The furniture, my violin -- he burned books, he just went through the whole house and destroyed all my things," Beth says. "Then he hopped a flight to one of his last gigs and was gone for two weeks."

Doug threw a Christmas tree out of a window, slammed Beth against a wall and hit her in the face, according to police reports. He was arrested, booked and photographed, and then spent the holidays and his birthday in jail. His life was in shambles.

"(It was) the first time I couldn't perform in my entire life. Took a sabbatical (but) didn't know that it was going to last for over two years," confides Ferrari.

The comic was able to get treatment and medicine, but without a paycheck he was completely dependent on social services. He dropped out of sight. Ailing, demoralized and depressed, he joined the faceless ranks of the homeless, living on the meanest streets in San Francisco, a neighborhood called The Tenderloin.

Life on the street

Ferrari makes jokes about it now. But at the time, there was nothing funny about how far he'd fallen.

"A 6-foot, 5-inch white guy with a nervous disorder, in the ghetto -- where everything you see is a crime, everyone is selling drugs, or they're prostituting or they're saying 'Hey, you're a cop,' and they're frisking me for wires, or they're trying to mug me, or they're grabbing my jewelry and running," he recalls.

Ferrari says he survived the Tenderloin by going numb. Before he knew it, an entire year had gone by.

"Everybody came here thinking they were going to get out," he says. "And if you stay in here too long, it's like quicksand. Eventually, mentally ... you think you belong here and you don't deserve to get out, and this is how it's supposed to be."

Doug might have stayed that way if it weren't for a chance encounter at a soup kitchen run by the St. Anthony Foundation. He met a young homeless man from Boston named Trent Hayward.

"He was the only person who was like, lucid, cogent, intelligent -- was reading a book," says Ferrari. "He was the only person I met in The Tenderloin besides me who was reading a book."

Doug didn't know it at the time, but Hayward was about to turn his life around.

"Well, Trent, because he was living on the streets, didn't write Doug Ferrari off," says Terry Messman, publisher of Street Spirit, a homeless advocate newspaper. Hayward was a writer, and Doug's story soon was out on the street, in black and white.

"He listened, and realized this guy was telling him the truth, that he was a world-renowned comedian on the level of a John Belushi say, or a Dana Carvey or Robin Williams," says Messman. "That's the level of a comedian that we had living on the streets of San Francisco, being ignored by everyone."

The story was so compelling that Trent Hayward's article prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to publish a similar story on page one.

Coming back to life

"When the article comes out, I realize two things. One is, 'Hey I really was somebody.' And two, boy I've got a lot of friends that I thought I couldn't call anymore," says Ferrari.

The first person to come to Doug's aid was Michael Pritchard, a friend, former comedian and social worker.

"I walked ... up to his room and saw it and I was frightened," says Pritchard. "Because I thought, how did this happen? It's bad. It's cockroaches on the wall. It's human feces, the smell of urine, and the sounds. You can never, never get enough night's sleep -- your sleep deprivation increases because there's crack deals going on."

Ferrari admits that Mike addressed him very sternly.

"I was told to get my self-esteem back, get my self-confidence back. (He) helped me get some clothes, get a pager, you know, get out of there," Ferrari says.

Doug was ready to be rescued. He had kept up with his therapy and medication and was working on keeping the mental illness under control.

But Trent Hayward, the homeless man who wrote the original article and made it possible, was unable to save himself. Weeks after it was published, Hayward died of a heroin overdose across the street from San Francisco City Hall.

Raising awareness

Ferrari says Hayward died of homelessness, and regrets that he never got a chance to thank him.

"That's the thing I never did. I'm very grateful to him and he was a good person," says Ferrari. "I promised myself that I'm never going to let something like that happen to anyone else I know on my watch."

Doug's plan for his watch is simple: take it one day, one punch line at a time. And just six weeks after leaving his roach-infested hotel room, he was back on stage at a charity event, surrounded by friends.

"In the last six years, I married the love of my life, I got into recovery and AA, halfway houses and hospital outpatient treatment," he tells the crowd. "I got into psychological therapy and anger management. I got on psych medications, so if you don't like my speech tonight, I don't give a damn. I'm on Prozac," he announces to laughter and applause.

Doug will probably never be free of borderline personality disorder, and he's looking at a lifetime of personal maintenance with a regimen of therapy and medications. He plans to devote half of his time performing at charity events to call attention to BPD and the homeless.

He tells his audience, "If you think you have no friends who care, that's the disorder. If you think you've got something wrong with you, then already you're sane enough to get better."

Doug's wife Beth now keeps a Web site and leads an online support group for spouses affected by BPD. Though they remain separated, both are working to get Doug's career back on track.

"Finally, ladies and gentlemen," Ferrari explains from onstage, "reality is not always as fun as drugs, but at least you know what you're getting. God bless you. I love you."

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Review: 'Of Two Minds'
May 31 2000
Anxiety disorder -- a problem beyond simple shyness
April 6, 2000
Anxiety: Most common mental health problem
February 2, 2000
White House conference targets attitudes toward mental illness
June 7, 1999

Borderline Personality Disorder Sanctuary
Overview of Borderline Personality Disorder
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill -- Borderline Personality Disorder
National Institute of Mental Health
American Psychiatric Association
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